All Sections

Home | History

Improvements ensure Cog's safety, owner says

Sunday News Correspondent

September 17. 2017 1:08AM
Wayne Presby, the owner of the Mount Washington Cog Railway, smiles as the train pulls into the station Thursday at the summit of the tallest mountain in the Northeast. (John Koziol/Sunday News Correspondent)

MARSHFIELD STATION - Fifty years after eight people lost their lives and scores were injured on the Mount Washington Cog Railway, safety has become the engine that drives the world-famous railroad.

Owner Wayne Presby says since he and other investors acquired the world's first mountain-climbing railroad in 1983, they've spent millions into making the Cog a better, safer experience for its passengers.

On Sept. 17, 1967, the railway suffered the most tragic event in its 148-year history when Engine No. 3 derailed and plunged down a rocky embankment near Jacob's Ladder which, with a grade of 37.41 degrees, is the steepest part of the Cog.

"We live with it (the memory of the accident) every day and everything we do here is a result of it," said Presby on a recent ride up the Cog. "We've gone way beyond what the state requires."

The improvements that the Cog has made under Presby span the entire length of the 3.5-mile-long railway, almost all of which is supported by a trestle, and cumulatively, said Presby, many entail replacing human beings with technology.

It is generally accepted that human error, possibly vandalism, was responsible for the improper setting of the Skyline Switch on Sept. 17, 1967. It was the first of several switches that Engine No. 3 and its coach car would normally encounter as it made its way to the Base Station.

When it hit the partially open switch - which required nine separate motions to set - Engine 3 derailed and went off the tracks. Its coach slid down several hundred more feet before slamming into rocks on the north side of the railway. The Skyline Switch was devised by the Cog's previous owners and while it worked, "it was not very rugged," said Presby. Also, setting the switch was labor-intensive and therefore susceptible to the kind of human error that caused the 1967 accident.

Starting in 1983, the manual switches have been replaced by electrically-controlled ones, and the lightweight platforms the switches rested on were replaced with multi-ton structures. The Cog's engines and coaches all have automatic brakes and the engine is speed controlled to a maximum of 4.7 miles per hour, up and down.

A Sprague clutch has replaced the ratchet system for emergency braking and a hydrostatic drive gives engineers much more control over their locomotives. Any failure on the biodiesel locomotive or inaction/no response on the deadman's switch will activate a shut down on the train.

Presby said there is better communication today among engineers, dispatchers, brakemen and maintenance personnel due to advances in radio technology and that there are safety policies and protocols for brakemen, engineers and dispatchers.

Engineers and brakeman must qualify for their respective positions through a training regimen and testing, which includes a written exam.

The Cog annually hires a contractor to do ultrasonic testing of all critical metal components and it has schedules for both train and track replacement and maintenance.

What many years ago had been run as a seasonal attraction, the current Cog is a year-round operation and as such, Presby said, is a superior railway to the Cog of 1967.

"The long-and-short of it is, a lot of what they were doing, operationally, led to the accident" of that year, said Presby. Instead of having a veteran crew, the old Cog ran lean by hiring teenagers and college students at minimum wage, whereas today the Cog cherishes experience and has several employees who've been there for 40 or more years.

Despite some diligent young Coggers behind their controls, the coal-fired steam locomotives, like Engine No. 3, were unwieldy, said Presby. Unlike today's bio-diesels, the steam engines required a coal tender, a car that impaired the engineer's visibility and ability to communicate with the brakeman on the coach.

That brakeman used to be outside of the coach, but now he or she is inside, said Presby, while the engineer rides in the locomotive alone. The fireman, who used to stoke the steam boiler with coal and ride with the engineer, is now superfluous.

The Cog also has completely replaced its track and in some places is using wood that is rated four times stronger than the materials used in the '60s.

Going forward, Presby said the Cog would like to install a camera system beneath all coaches that would detect problems in real time. The railway is also finalizing plans for a year-round track crew. Plans are for the crew to work under a tent to protect them from the elements. The tent would be moved up or down the tracks.

"We're going to do everything we can" to improve passenger safety and comfort, said Presby. Since 1967, the Cog has safely carried more than five million passengers to the top of Mount Washington and back, he said.

John Robinson, railroad safety inspector and investigator for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation's Bureau of Rail and Transit, inspects the Cog annually, sometimes several times a year.

His office also receives monthly inspection reports from the Cog, which were mandated by the Governor and Executive Council in March 1968.

Descending the Mount Washington Cog Railway on Thursday, engineer Cookie Sodergren slows down near the Skyline Switch, where, 50 years ago today, Engine No. 3 and its coach derailed, killing eight people and injuring more than 70 others. (John Koziol/Sunday News Correspondent)

Robinson, who has been in his present post since 2000, said one of the Cog's earliest and most substantive improvements was replacing what he called "the old puzzle switches," which because of the work required to set them, did not represent a "really comprehensive, safe way" to operate the railway.

"The other thing that I've noticed in my tenure is they made substantial rail-component modifications," Robinson said, including joining the rails with a plate; a "much more robust and hardier rack"; and an "aggressive trestle-wood replacement."

Overall, the track is "bigger, better, more modern," Robinson said, while the hydrostatic drives on the biodiesel locomotives "allow for much more control, certainly on the down-mountain move. Before, they had to station a brakeman on the coach and it would take a very skilled brakeman to maintain the prescribed distance from the locomotive."

Even the coaches the Cog is running are much improved, he said, because in addition to the newest safety features, they offer an air-cushion ride; are made of sound and vibration dampening materials; and, unlike, their predecessors, are air-conditioned.

An acknowledged New Hampshire "homer," Robinson said he is proud of the Cog.

"In my opinion, it's one of the greatest attractions in the state and something that my railroad counterparts from all over the world have enjoyed. I've been on the (Pikes Peak cog railway in Colorado) and I have to say it's not as exciting."

As a regulator, Robinson said the Cog's safety record since 1967 "speaks for itself."

"There have been virtually no incidents" since 1967, he said, "and very few, if any, personal injuries. They take safety very seriously."

That September accident 50 years ago was terrible, Robinson said, but it drove home "the importance of safety oversight and that if somebody is not doing their job, this could be the consequence."

Finally, the accident serves as a reminder, he said, "that things can go very wrong on a 30 percent grade."

General News Public Safety Accidents Transportation History Mt. Washington

More Headlines